Are We Seeing the End of Supermarkets?

I grew up with the habit of Thursday nights as the time when family shopped together at the local supermarket, and I always assumed, for good or ill, that supermarkets were permanent. It’s now clear that old style super-markets are on their way out.

Beginning this month, Wal-Mart Canada kicks off its one-year agenda to add 40 new supercenters to its Canadian stable, on top of today’s 124. Anticipating this expansion, Loblaw’s is already well along in its transformation to a general merchandise superstore. Other pharmacy and general merchandise chains, most notably Target, Shoppers Drug Mart and Walgreen, are becoming new heavy hitters on the food scene.

So the concept of a big grocery store that mainly sold food is as obsolete as the notion of a box store or gas station that doesn’t.

This transformation of a major industry on which a population’s health and food security and a region’s jobs and economic security are dependent could continue happening one megastore at a time.

Or some farseeing politician could say that this scale of change is too momentous to just happen, or to  be governed simply by forces driven by short-term profit of a few corporations, and not by public planning.

There are few signs than any of today’s politicians, few of whom have ever demonstrated much understanding of food or public health, have an inkling of what’s in store, or any appetite to fit such a many-sided issue into their simplistic political scripts.

The only major political figure to weigh in so far is U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, who actually put the prestige of the White House behind Wal-Mart by attending and endorsing their launch of a new line of products which the company claims will boost access to more nutritious foods.

A corporate chain that can pull off that level of celebrity endorsement defies previous standards of political independence in a democracy, and provides a new indicator of the best politicians that money can buy.

Lady Obama joined Wal-Mart in its January 20 Washington launch of a bid to position itself as a responsible grocer to the world, one that should be entitled to set up shop in big cities that have so far spurned it. To make that marketing breakthrough, the company is sprucing up its image.

First, Wal-Mart will reduce salt and sugar used in processed foods it sells by ten per cent over the next four years. Second, it will make nutritious eating more affordable by slashing a billion dollars off overall costs of “better-for-you” food choices. Third, Wal-Mart will develop strict measures for a standard good-for-you seal to be placed prominently on food packages it sells. Fourth, it will build stores in low-income areas of cities that do without food stores now, areas commonly referred to as food deserts. Fifth, Wal-Mart will increase its charitable support for nutrition education.

It is challenging to cover off all that’s misleading n this offering. For starters, Wal-Mart and Lady Obama are at one with the classic U.S. axis-of-evil approach to nutrition. This approach assumes a few evil ingredients harm innocent people who imagined themselves to be safely eating processed foods in the security of their own car or TV room, and these evil forces should be expelled.. That’s why they can promise a quick technical fix to nutritional and weight issues by hiving off specific bad elements, and ignoring the overall lifestyles and determinants of health that drive disease.  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but nutrition, health and obesity are not solved one terrorizing ingredient at a time, any more than peace is achieved by offing one evil terrorist at a time.

The celeb White House endorsement has significant negative implications for regulation, since Lady Obama in effect grants a private corporation, Wal-Mart, authority to both decide and certify what is safe and healthful, as well as to set the price level for both consumers and producers for more nutritious foods. Shouldn’t this be preceded by a public discussion of other ways to chop a billion from the food budget without taking it out of the hides of producers of nutritious foods? Perhaps even some of the savings from cancelling U.S. government subsidies to cheap carbs and high-fat animal products, to the tune of about $20 billion a year.

Likewise, the Lady Obama-Wal-Mart announcement says nutrition education will be funded by corporate charities in the food area — the same corporations that sell food. They both regulate for those who can afford, and find leftovers for those who can’t afford (perhaps because they work at Wal-Mart).  One company countries, anyone?

Giving one box store operator the presidential family okay to set up food stores in low-income urban areas comes at a time when Wal-Mart and other box store operators are making their move into city cores, facing resistance from independent businesses and community groups that have long opposed the last bastion of independent community-based businesses.

The idea that issues such as food deserts should be addressed by city officials responsible to the electorate seems to have been left behind in the soft-sell box-store discourse.  Wal-Mart can and will look after this, it’s promised.

Despite Wal-Mart’s ominous size and power, the supercenter trend is much bigger than Wal-Mart. It’s about the Wal-Mart business model, not Wal-Mart. Bogeymen are not what this debate needs.

The rise of hyper markets, box store chains and supercenters happened during the 1990s, the heyday of deregulated economies and a new world odor marked by the outsourcing of standard private sector industrial and other middle income jobs to the Global South.

That’s when all big chains all around North America and Europe jumped from controlling less than one in four retail dollars during the 1950s to today’s reality when the top ten chains control one retail dollar in three, according to Stacy Mitchell’s authoritative but hard-hitting study, Big-Box Swindle.  The changeover was linked to sprawl, as space devoted to retail and parking almost doubled across North America, while miles travelled by shoppers increased 40 per cent, Mitchell shows. Toronto’s rate of transformation was in keeping with this trend , Mitchell says.

There are public interest issues galore in this transformation.  Main streets, commonly thought of as the lifesource of vibrant cities, will be put on life support when supercenters offer a full-on main street of book displays, dry cleaners, banking services, bakers, butchers, candlestick makers and other anchors of main street food traffic. The prospect of considerably less than ten multinational chains dominating about half of all retail sales is worrisome to those who believe dinosaur-style corporate concentration is bad news for responsive customer service or responsible environmental innovation, not to mention the resilience of particular places, which function best when eggs are spread over many baskets.

The urban supercenter is not yet a fore-ordained reality, still a choice yet to be finalized. But not for long.

(Wayne Roberts is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food who speaks frequently on alternative food perspectives. A version of this article more attuned to Toronto readers has appeared in NOW Magazine; to access it, please see www.nowtoronto.com )

Comments

  1. Stefan says:

    Greatly enjoyed your article.

  2. Shiamala says:

    Endorsements should be left for celebrities, at least we know they get paid to promote the products. In my opinion, Michelle Obama should not have endorsed Wal-Mart or any companies for that matter. Instead, how about introducing stringent regulations for health claims? Many are fooled into eating things that are claimed to be healthy, Vitamin Water? Did anyone check to see the ingredient list?

  3. Bonnie says:

    I believed that the only change could be done is better education for shoppers.

    In my opinion, majority of shopper are lazy these days, which all sorts of technology assistance had come into place, to help the shopper to shop “smarter”. Which in a sense, aren’t we as shopper suppose to be more responsible when it comes to inset food in our mouth?! Not to mention, to feed our children with quality food.

    Corporation has responsibility, so as government official as well. Unfortunately some of the government official aren’t really here to make better policy ( those blood sucking politician really should step down, fault promise and unthoughtful ).

    The reality is, money rule these days. However, since money & global media are main stream, we as shopper could be more selective, to chose what is really good for us, not just for ourselves but also the environment as well. Together, we can all live better and longer, not to mention, with all the food are available these days, there shouldn’t be any global citizen die off hunger.

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